Q: So what’s Intellectual History?
A: Intellectual History examines how ideas shape and influence history. For example, an Intellectual Historian may explore the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution to understand how the concept of survival of the fittest became a key justification for the racism and imperialism that marked the long nineteenth-century. While it may not have been Darwin’s intention, his observation was ultimately employed by others to fit a form of Social Darwinism which was used to support racial and nationalistic aims. Similarly, the German philosopher Friedrick Nietzsche’s concept of the “ubermensch” or “superman” gave context to the rise of racial nationalism, especially in Germany. The ubermensch was not part of the herd and was therefore held to a different set of rules and standards, according to Nietzsche. Hitler was quite taken with this idea. He is known to have shared Nietzsche’s books with Mussolini.
Q: You did your doctoral dissertation on this?
A: My topic was “The Discourse of Vengeance in the Press of the French Revolution.” I researched newspapers and periodicals being written and published in Paris from the years 1789 to 1793, during the French Revolution. I was able to discover an emerging 18th century contemporary idea about vengeance being right and just. The radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat used this idea to push the crowd towards violence. In fact, it was this justification of vengeance which would ultimately fuel the atrocities and violent upheavals that took place throughout France during the Revolution. Perhaps because of this, the concept survives today in the more rational perception as “the vengeance of the law.”
Q: But I see you started out as an art historian.
A: Actually, I was originally interested in sculpting and painting, and got a (bachelor’s) degree in Fine Arts. During my requisite courses in Art History I discovered that I was more interested in studying the political and historical influences that are reflected in art. This led to my pursuit of a master’s of Philosophy in Intellectual History. My master’s thesis examined the ideas that sparked the September Prison Massacres of 1792, sometimes referred to as the First Terror, which occurred during the third year of the French Revolution.
Q: So is that what you focus your scholarly writing on—the French Revolution?
A: In a manner of speaking, yes. But my recent writing hasn’t been scholarship. I’ve just completed a historical novel, although it involves real people and is 99-percent based on historical fact. It is set in 1793 during the Reign of Terror. The protagonists are Marie Antoinette and Madame Roland—contemporaries and adversaries. Madame Roland was a real person who was married to the king’s Minister of the Interior. Like her husband, she was a Jacobin and an intellectual whose political views were left-leaning. She and her husband openly attacked Marie-Antoinette in a Girondist newspaper with which they were affiliated. But Madame Roland too fell out of favor with the leadership when the Revolution took an even more radical turn. Like Marie Antoinette, she was imprisoned and executed by the guillotine. The story is a juxtaposition of their lives. They were enemies, but in the end they suffered the same fate. Both had daughters who survived them.
Q: Sounds like a fun novel, sort of a French-ified version of Downton Abbey. But what makes it 99 percent factual and not 100 percent?
A: While much of the dialogue is based on actual correspondence and historical documentation, I also had to take some artistic license on occasion to fill in the blanks.
Q: And when this is edited and published, what then?
A: I may look at the next generation. Both Marie Antoinette and Madame Roland had daughters and they both lived through two more revolutions that rocked France: one in 1833 and the other in 1848. Their experiences were very different, so we get to see these events from different perspectives.
Q: OK, but I have to wonder how someone with such a passion for Intellectual History winds up teaching here.
A: Intellectual History provides an excellent platform for teaching and learning because it enables students to come to understand that history isn’t black and white. There are no absolute answers to what happened and why something happened. As a result, students need to think critically about history. For example, was Stalin responsible for the Cold War or was the U.S.? It’s all open for debate. I love watching students sort through issues and think deeply about the root causes and underlying motivations that lead to events of historic significance. As a professor, I enjoy watching students experience a “eureka moment” when they suddenly come to a new appreciation or understanding about history and blurt out something like, “Oh, so that’s why that happened!”